Skip to content

C. Thi Nguyen: Games, agency and value plurality

Let me summarize my account of games… Games, I’ve argued, are the art form that works in the medium of agency. The game designer doesn’t just create characters, stories, and environments. The game designer sculpts the temporary agency that the player will occupy during the game. They design, not only a world, but who the player will be in that world.

I do not just mean that the game designer provides a fictional backstory for a character. They design the essential agential structure of the in-game actor. They designate what the in-game agent’s abilities and affordances will be — whether they will be a jumper, a shooter, a builder or an information gatherer. And, most importantly, the game designer sets the in-game agent’s motivations by setting the goals of the game.

And the game player submerges themselves in this sculpted agency, temporarily. Game playing involves the temporary adoption of an alternate set of goals.

Why do all this? For one thing, our goals in game-life are so much clearer than in ordinary life. In ordinary life, our goals are often obscure. We often don’t know exactly what we’re doing — or we find our reasons hard to articulate and difficult to apply. And we are beset with a confusing welter of values – both from within our own value system, and from the bruising value complexity of the social world.

But games offer a relief from all that. While playing a game, we know exactly what we are trying to do — and afterwards, we know exactly how well we have done. Success in a game is clear and unmistakable. There are points.

And game values usually fit neatly with one another. In ordinary life, our values are hard to balance. I care about spending time with my loved ones, raising my children right, writing good philosophy, enjoying myself in rock climbing, staying healthy, and eating delicious food. Not only are my values often in tension, but there is usually no way to precisely compare them. How do I compare achievements under one of these goals against sacrifices in another? What, exactly, is the cost-benefit analysis for choosing between working today or taking my children to the aquarium?

But with games, there is usually a clear central currency of value. A game tells me to achieve victory points and then tells me exactly how many victory points things are worth. The goods of a game are readily commensurable, by design. In ordinary life, values are often inchoate, subtle, and difficult to apply. But in games, values are easy. Games offer us a momentary experience of value clarity. They are a balm for the existential pains of real life. In games, we know exactly what we are doing and why we are doing it. And when we are done, we know exactly how well we have done.

Games offer us a momentary respite from the value confusion of the world.

C. Thi Nguyen – How Twitter Gamifies Communication

See also:

World without ends
C. Thi Nguyen: games and agency; games as art
Champion, or Ways to Win (1)
C. Thi Nguyen on Twitter, Gamification and Thin Metrics

1 thought on “C. Thi Nguyen: Games, agency and value plurality”

  1. And now I know why games are good at training certain values ; because those values have now been isolated from some competing or confusing forces and so people can just immerse themselves in a world with simpler mechanisms.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...